Hydrogen ‘not a silver bullet’ for net-zero heating and transport, MPs warn
As low-carbon hydrogen production in the UK scales, the Government will need to ensure that this hydrogen is used in the most efficient ways possible – which are likely to be in industrial settings rather than for home heating and cars.
That is the call to action from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee, following a recent exploration of the role of hydrogen in delivering the UK’s legally binding 2050 net-zero target and its interim carbon budgets.
The Committee has this week published a report concluding that hydrogen will likely have a “specific but limited” role in decarbonising the economy, both as a means of energy storage and a way to decarbonise technologies for which there are no electrified alternatives at present.
“Hydrogen will have its place… but we do not believe that it will be the panacea to our problems that might sometimes be inferred from the hopes placed on it,” the summary states.
The report starts by reiterating that, while hydrogen produces no greenhouse gas emissions at the point of combustion, it must be produced, with most production globally powered by fossil fuels. This means that most hydrogen is not a low-carbon solution across the life-cycle. While welcoming the Government’s target for the UK to host 10GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, the report cautions against bullish support for blue hydrogen, which is produced using natural gas co-located with carbon capture. The Committee notes the risk of relying on carbon capture technologies that are not yet commercially mature.
Another concern is the fact that using green hydrogen “inevitably involves the loss of energy through the inefficiency of all such industrial processes [as electrolysing water]”. In other words, for some applications, it would be better to directly use renewable electricity rather than green hydrogen. Committee members heard that there is an unmet need for renewable energy to contribute directly to power supply, which is likely to only increase as electricity demand grows.
As the report continues, the Committee states that there are some key sectors where hydrogen adoption is being heavily recommended by industry and/or policy, despite its adoption potentially being unwise in terms of efficiency and economics. Chief among them are heating homes and powering lighter road vehicles such as cars.
Regarding home heating, the report notes that adding hydrogen in blends above 20% to the natural gas grid would require a large-scale programme of replacing network infrastructure, boilers and other devices. The Committee recognises that not all homes will be suitable for heat pumps or heat networks as an alternative to gas boilers, but cautions against going all-in on hydrogen.
The Heat and Buildings Strategy, published in late 2021, deferred a decision on Government mandates and targets for hydrogen in home heating until 2026. The Government stated that it first wanted to complete large-scale trials of blends and pure hydrogen in local communities.
In the meantime, the Committee wants the Government to thoroughly assess the practicalities, including costs and benefits, of hydrogen for home heating. It notes that blending will be trialled in 2023 and that consultations on whether all boilers should be hydrogen-ready by 2026 are underway.
Regarding transport, the Committee has heard evidence that hydrogen would be best applied in sub-sectors that are hard to electrify. These include heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), long-haul freight shipping and aviation. Cars and vans, the Committee concludes, are likely to be electrified rather than powered by hydrogen.
The report notes that hydrogen HGVs are developing well, but that there are still challenges to scaling them. Rather than technology maturity, a main barrier is the need to scale refuelling infrastructure so drivers can be sure of reliable fuel access – including access across Europe for international routes.
For shipping and aviation, the conclusion is that the likely “winner” from potential low-carbon technologies has yet to emerge, due to some technologies being in their relative infancy. Both sectors are looking at electrification for short-haul trips plus fuels other than hydrogen. The Committee is urging the UK to use its international influence to set standards and timelines for joint decisions on the role of alternative fuels in these sectors.
“There are significant infrastructure challenges associated with converting our energy networks to use hydrogen and uncertainty about when low-carbon hydrogen can be produced at scale at an economical cost,” said Committee chairman Greg Clark MP. “But there are important applications for hydrogen in particular industries so it can be, in the words of one witness to our inquiry, ‘a big niche’.
The report was broadly welcomed by some organisations, including the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). The ECIU’s head of international programmes Gareth Redmond-King said: “We can’t drill for hydrogen, nor harness it with panels or turbines. We have to make it. All but a tiny fraction of the world’s hydrogen production currently uses fossil fuels – which is why oil and gas companies are keen to cast it as a catch-all cure for climate change.
“Green hydrogen has a big role to play in our net zero future for stuff with no easy alternatives, like industry, heavy vehicles, and shipping. Less expensive, more efficient clean solutions already exist for things like heating our homes.”
However, other organisations believe that the Committee is asking Ministers to take decisions that are too restrictive, too soon. The Energy Networks Association’s director of gas James Earl said: “No one energy source is a panacea, but it is far too soon to start limiting our options when designing the best possible solutions to tackle the challenge of net-zero.
“The energy system of the future needs to be based on a variety of energy sources and technologies, to ensure our infrastructure can cope with variations in demand and supply. We equally need to ensure that customers have different options available to them.”
edie has also heard from green hydrogen company Protium’s chief executive Chris Jackson, who said that “green hydrogen is not about residential homes – it is about the bigger picture and the critical question of how to address UK emissions as a whole”.
Jackson added: “When it comes to creating a greener powered future for the UK, we need to start by decarbonising the biggest emitters first – namely industry and transport.
“While residential homes are an emotive topic for decarbonisation, they are not the hardest to abate sector and with even moderate energy efficiency measures their greenhouse gas footprint can reduce substantially. The current debate raging around hydrogen in the press in the context of how to power energy efficient homes is missing the point.”
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